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Single Parents & the Struggle to Pay for College

John Coogan

Paying for college is difficult for many families, but the burden can be even heavier for single parents.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that a four-year college costs approximately $22,000 per year. That number seems enormous, especially when you factor in that according to the U.S. Census Bureau, half of single mothers make only about $25,000 annually. There are grants and loans available to those families, but they don’t bridge the gap. For some, this leaves the dream of a college education out of reach.

Others decide to take on the financial burden themselves. According to a report by the Project on Student Debt at the Institute for College Access & Success, students graduate with an average of $29,000 in debt. To make matters worse, the study found a fifth of that debt was owed to private lenders, which often charge higher interest rates. After four years of college, many students are left with nearly $30,000 in loans that quickly become much more.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be any relief in sight. The NCES reports that during the past 10 years, the prices for undergraduate tuition, room and board at public institutions rose 42%. Annual family incomes haven’t risen at the same rate, and the Census Bureau found the annual family income for single parents actually decreased during the past 10 years.

Easing the Burden

So, how can we help these families before and after they take on the burden of paying for their education? We need to make sure they are aware of the reality of taking on $30,000 in debt and what that means for their future. New data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that 600,000 federal student loan holders who entered into repayment in 2010 defaulted on their loans by 2012. Defaulting on those loans could have a long-lasting impact on their financial future. Not only does it cause the cost of their loan to increase, but it can also impact credit, which can make it difficult to buy a home or a car. It can even make it difficult to get hired for certain jobs that require a credit check.

(Editor’s Note: If you want to see how student loans impact your credit, the free Credit Report Card will break down your credit strengths and weaknesses and update two of your credit scores every month.)

It’s also important that students take advantage of every grant opportunity that might be available to them. One family, whose story we found out about when they applied for a grant through our organization, shared the same worries about college costs that we commonly see among single parents. Sharon McNeely wasn’t sure how she was going to pay for her three children to go to college. Her husband was killed while serving in the Navy 10 years ago and as a single mother, she didn’t know if she would be able to afford it. Previously, she had looked into scholarships and received some assistance from the G.I. Bill, but it wasn’t enough. Her oldest son, 21-year-old Devin, started at an out-of-state college, but had to come home because tuition went up. He enrolled at an in-state school, then obtained additional grants to help with the costs. After discovering new resources to help cover college costs, McNeely is now confident that her two other children will also be able to attend college.

Looking for Assistance

Finding scholarships and grants to meet your specific needs can be easier than you think.

The Federal Government issues more grants than any other entity, so this should be the first stop for all college students requiring financial aid, including single-parent families. Applying for federal aid is a straightforward, standardized procedure that starts with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

In many states, reserve funds are held for the most disadvantaged applicants. Consult your state’s department of higher education for specifics about grant programs.

Some educational institutions are committed to advancing education for single parents and issue scholarships of their own. For example, the University of Wisconsin — Eau Claire offers several scholarships for single mothers returning to education and Kaplan University established a single-parent scholarship for the university’s undergraduate and graduate programs.

There are also several websites to help the search. At fastweb.com you’ll find thousands of websites at your fingertips as well as help with career planning. There are grants specific to subject majors at scholarships.com and 2,300 sources of financial aid and more than $6 billion in scholarship awards at collegeboard.org. These are just a few of the many resources that are available online.

Cost shouldn’t stop anyone from pursuing an education, whether it be a child or a single parent. If their goal is to be a college graduate, there are federal, state and private grants available.

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